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Managers in 'The Modern Game'

Wednesday 24th August 2011
A study of the relationship between football clubs and their managers


As a young person spending the summer trying to make myself more employable, perhaps my thoughts should be totally focused on what exactly I am going to do for a living after leaving my life as a strictly-after-midday university student. Constantly reminded by people infinitely wiser and more clued up than I about the job markets of today and yesteryear, it should perhaps concern me that ‘jobs are scarce' and that ‘people simply don't have a job for life anymore'. However, these warnings, as a Villa fan who remains in an unconvinced consideration of Alex McLeish's appointment as coach, have directed my thoughts of late not necessarily just to the issue of my future professional life, but to the current predicament of the job market for football's top managers.


‘The Modern Game'

The term ‘the modern game' is perhaps one of the biggest clichés in football, and has come to be used as a means for explaining what is wrong with the sport. There is a constant suggestion that football has changed dramatically and that issues that exist today never existed before, and while I'm willing to accept that often this could be the case, the over-use of the dreaded term perhaps weakens a number of arguments that are attached to it. I should highlight that the nature of the situation for managers in ‘the modern game' is perhaps one of the aspects of the football that has indeed changed most considerably.

For most managers today, their position is almost never safe. Failing to meet rich owners ridiculously high and often unrealistic season expectations or simply a run of bad results can have the ‘gaffer' picking up a rather generous compensation package, which provides a soft landing when predictably, and often unceremoniously, kicked out by the hard-nosed board members who are convinced a change is needed for the tenth time that year.

Football is a tough sport, and the frequent replacement of managers – which has become as common as changing shirt designs for many clubs – is clear evidence of this. It is this constant changing of coaches that fascinates and troubles me, because it is a part of the ‘modern culture' of football that indicates the prevalence of a number of factors in the sport – the importance and yet nonchalant use of money, the necessity for immediate results, and a lack of respect and loyalty to people in the sport.

Undoubtedly, ‘the modern game' has not been helped by the media, who seem more aggressive and determined than ever in their attempts to find or create a story. Each year, without fail, they whip up a frenzy of gossip about who is going to be the first manager of the season sacked and can almost guarantee a change of manager at Chelsea or Real Madrid if they go a season without silverware. The pressure is high, and rightly so, because football means so much, to so many. However, it's fair to propose that the pressure is becoming intolerable and even impossible to succeed under for many coaches, players and owners. The press amplifies each fan's smallest gripe with the current state of their club by a thousand and seems capable of convincing even the most powerful individuals in the sport to make a decision or change opinion. The pressure, intensity and competition of football are what we love most, so this is not entirely a complaint, but also an observation that the media has had its part to play.

The key question to be dealt with in all of this is whether or not the constant changing of management staff – for whatever reason – is actually beneficial to a club and its ambitions.


Crippled by the temporary

There's really only one place I can start – and that's my beloved Villa, surprisingly.

For me, there was something about the reign of Gerard Houllier as manager that just felt temporary. The reasons for this sense that his role was fleeting at Villa Park are unclear, but probably mainly due to the underlying concern for his poor health, which eventually brought a premature end to his spell in the Midlands. I considered this extremely detrimental to the club and became quite disillusioned with the team last year along with many other Villa fans.

The sense of temporary is not good at a club, because it makes it impossible to set out and work towards long-term ambitions. Consistency and unity are both non-existent when there is a sense of short-term and this was recognised by players and fans alike. Only when Houllier left after what was an unsuccessful season relative to the three preceding ones under Martin O'Neill did I appreciate that it was not his fault that his charge felt temporary – and I'm not talking about his health either.

I realised that football has entered an era where the period of any manager at any club is impermanent and that it was laughable that I considered during his reign, that Martin O'Neill, who had been our best manager for a long time, could have potentially stayed for many more years than he did. It was idealistic and unrealistic. ‘The modern game' just doesn't work that way anymore and the values of mutual loyalty and respect between club and staff are hard to come by. It is depressing as a fan of the sport to consider that the probability of keeping a high-quality manager at your club until the end of his contract is almost unheard of.

Now, Alex McLeish becomes Aston Villa's third manager in the past eleven months and already the challenge is on – even more so than usual – to be a success at Villa. It's difficult to see him as a long-term Villa manager, given the current climate.

Chelsea have a new manager too – the sixth one in six years, in fact. Young André Villas-Boas is like a lamb to the slaughter it seems, but then again the Chelsea faithful are building him up to be the next Mourinho, so panic over – the Blues have found the right man ... haven't they? Frankly, it's unlikely – we've heard it all before, the pre-season, new manager hype and optimism that buzzes around Stamford Bridge almost as fervently as the journalists try to force the young Portuguese manager to claim he is ‘the special one' or indeed ‘the special one, version two'.

Between the arrival of Villas-Boas last month from Porto and the departure of the original himself in 2007, most significantly was the excitement that built up around Carlo Ancelotti's appointment in 2009. Journalists were whispering about how hard and how long Russian owner Roman Abramovich had worked to secure the Italian as boss at the Bridge and that this appointment seemed to ensure success. They were right about this prediction – at least for his first season – as Ancelotti led Chelsea to an emphatic Premier League title and FA Cup double. Jubilation ensued and ‘King Carlo' looked set to lead Chelsea to greatness for years to come. If only.

Barely days after the end of last season – Ancelotti's second at Chelsea – he was fired, as demanded by the press who, along with Chelsea fans and most importantly the man on the yacht, had changed their tune quite drastically. A year without trophies, and being second best to Man United, wasn't acceptable and ‘King Carlo' had to find another throne away from West London. The compensation package is still keeping him occupied.

This is the example that stands out in recent years for me. This is the example that underlines more than any that the best football managers are in an impossible job, even if they are paid well. It's a harsh business and they often find themselves looking for a new job before they've even had time to make any sort of mark on the team.


Two halves to every game

Returning to Jose Mourinho, it has to be said that he is perhaps the only man on the planet who can survive a season of winning no major trophies at the Santiago Bernabeu. Real Madrid offer another prime example of the way in which the top clubs are now employing a ruthless ‘we want results, or you're out' policy with their managers. Fortunately, not barmy enough to get rid of ‘the special one' at the end of his first year in charge, Los Blancos might just have found the long-term manager they have been looking for, hiring and firing many men of varying successes (and nationalities) in the process.

Nevertheless, Mourinho forefronts the new type of manager that exists in this ‘modern game'. While, by and large, it is fair to say that clubs get rid of their managers at the first sign of failure, many of today's coaches are not exactly shy of using the door to illustrate unhappiness with the board or simply because they have been offered a more desirable position elsewhere. In Mourinho's case, he could well have been Chelsea's manager for many years but his necessity for another challenge, to bolster his ever-expanding ego and reputation meant he needed to burst out and claim victory elsewhere. And he did, winning the treble at Inter Milan. That is the nature of football today; it is forever changing and inconsistent, full of characters looking for more every time. Of course, there is no problem with being motivated by further success, but you only have to look at Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger to appreciate that success at one club for a long period of time can be just as, if not even more rewarding as moving around in search for new conquests.

In addition to, and indeed in direct competition with, Mourinho, is Pep Guardiola. The young manager who has achieved everything so quickly, has managed debatably the greatest club side of all time to three La Liga titles, two Champions Leagues, one Copa del Rey and a Club World Cup title, all within three years. Yet despite all of this, he has confirmed that he will be leaving the Camp Nou at the end of the 2011/12 season. Quite contrary to Fergie, it seems this new brand of manager is not satisfied building a lasting legacy at one club and continuing to build on what has already been achieved. Many argue that Guardiola – once a player of Barcelona – has won everything he possibly can and that there is no motivation for him to stay with the club he has served his whole professional career. I say that's utter nonsense – again, look at Sir Alex's commitment and undying motivation at the same club every season.

It should be noted that players are perhaps just as likely, if not more so than managers, to disregard loyalty and leave the club for a better offer or indeed be sent packing because they don't fulfil their job description immediately. This suggests, undoubtedly, that in fact the current changing nature of ‘the modern game' encompasses everybody in the sport. Fortunately, I have faith that fans are slightly more loyal… at least I hope so.


Ferguson – three years of persistence, two decades of success
You're probably expecting, in an article about football managers, that I have to talk in depth about the man who is, quite simply, the greatest ever. Well you'd be correct. No matter what you think of the man, or the club he manages, Sir Alex Ferguson deserves the utmost respect for his achievements at Manchester United.

Ferguson recently celebrated his 25th anniversary since he took charge of the Red Devils back in 1986. Tributes were paid by almost everyone who has ever played or managed top-flight football. He is an icon; along with the club he has built to be arguably the greatest of all time. Year in, year out, Manchester United are a force to be reckoned with and Ferguson – to have consistently built teams for a quarter of a century that are capable of success at the top level – deserves huge credit, for this is no accident.

Having been through a number of examples of the new culture of changing manager every year or two for most of Europe's top clubs, it is only right to study how and why Manchester United have done it all so right.

Ferguson was on the brink of being sacked by Manchester United back in December 1989, having managed United for three years and having little success. United finished the last season of the decade just outside of the relegation zone. Journalists and fans were calling for him to be shown the door, with banners at Old Trafford reading, ‘Three years of excuses and it's still crap. Ta ra Fergie'. Now, he looks back on the period as ‘the darkest period (he had) ever suffered in the game' and it is clear to see why, when looking at the success that was to follow.

The 90s belonged to Manchester United, and this was the beginning of the legend that would eventually see United lift their 19th league title in 2011, equalling the record of their great rivals Liverpool, which seemed unreachable and impossible in 1990. I don't need to list off Ferguson's achievements over the last 20 years, for everybody knows about Manchester United and their success. Ferguson has built squads over the years that score goals, concede few and win title after title. But what he has built is so much more than that.

Of course, Ferguson has been fortunate in many respects, and not least with the players who have maintained both their phenomenal, consistent performances but also their loyalty to the club and its ambitions. Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville – these are the sorts of players who have had the honour of playing for Manchester United throughout Ferguson's reign and indeed they have been central to his success as a football manager. However, it is the very point that they are honoured to play for United that is significant. That is the mutual respect between club and playing staff that Ferguson has created, and is the reason for which Man United's players have the same hunger to achieve success almost every season. They are honoured to play for the club; the club is honoured by their loyalty and performances on the pitch.

On top of this, Ferguson has been the beneficiary of huge support for Manchester United around the world, with Old Trafford packed out week after week. This is undoubtedly an aspect that adds to the essence of the great club and instils the sense of success and grandeur that surrounds it. Financial backing has always been available for Ferguson as well, and many people would suggest that therefore his job of replacing players and creating top class squads has been easy. If this were the case, surely all of the Chelsea, Real Madrid and Manchester City managers of late would have been hugely successful. This is not the case. Ferguson has used all of these aspects to make United what they are today. Most importantly, he has maintained the huge desire and expectations to succeed throughout his reign. The fans, players and staff all have the United spirit, and he is the heart continually pumping it around the club.

The financial backing, the huge fan base, the greatly talented squads of players that have all contributed to the success down the years would be nothing if it weren't for the attitude and legacy at Manchester United that Ferguson has developed and sustained so masterfully. There is an expectation of Ferguson's players that they will perform for him, for Old Trafford, for Manchester United. Success is written in their history and glory is the song they dance to. Around these notions has Sir Alex Ferguson built Manchester United Football Club of recent times, and for this reason is the team respected by every opponent they face and supported by millions worldwide.

Now, I apologise for getting all high-horse and elaborate about the grand successes of the purple-nosed Scot, but this is really is the most pure example of a manager bleeding his own style of football, his own passions and his own philosophies into the heart of a club. He is the man they gather around for inspiration; he is their leader and he commands success. It's an obvious point - unity is the key to collective success, and having a manager who is firmly integrated and central to the setup is vital for creating the cohesive togetherness that makes Manchester United. His delight at winning the Community Shield on Sunday was evidence of how motivated he still is and the free-flowing football of his young United side was a joy to behold. Ferguson and Manchester United are back for another season – expect the expected.

It is, therefore, in consideration of how important it is for a club to have a strong, consistent figurehead for a considerable amount of time, that the current climate of periodically changing managers is ineffective, and in my view, wrong.

Just imagine if Manchester United had in fact said ‘ta ra Fergie' back in 1989…


Time to reload for the Gunners?
There are examples of great long-serving managers, such as Arsène Wenger at Arsenal, whose success has dwindled. The Frenchman has been at the Gunners for fifteen years and the brand of football he has instilled in his team is commendable. Unfortunately, the passing style has not saved a complete drought in terms of silverware for the red part of North London in recent times, which has resulted in many people questioning whether Wenger has ‘lost it' and even a number of Arsenal fans are suggesting that it might be time for change.

To an extent, this is an understandable reaction from fans of a club that was by far and away the best side in the country for the first few years of the new millennium. However, the factor of money cannot be overlooked because Arsenal have not won the Premier League title since 2003/04 and have since fallen behind Chelsea and Man United, who regularly spend big money to bolster their squads. With Manchester City's gazillions now enabling them to bring in a new star player every five minutes – and even attracting the likes of Arsenal's Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy – it seems Arsenal are falling even further down the food chain.

I still consider Monsieur Wenger to be a superb manager and in spite of some reservations about his stubbornness regarding transfer policy, believe he can once again make Arsenal the top side in England. He has the passion, and has developed his brand of football over years at Highbury and now of course the Emirates Stadium. He is their leader and gains the respect of almost every player who plays under his charge. I just hope his time at Arsenal does not come to an end because of the growing level of impatience that seems to dominate all decisions in football.


To back or to sack?

This is by no means a sympathy campaign for top-flight managers, nor is it a suggestion that the manager is the main reason for success at a football club – but they are significant. Managers do get it wrong and are not always right for the job, so a change is required when they simply won't be beneficial for the club in the long-term. Nonetheless, it is an argument that a strong manager that is able to build the club around him and his philosophy over time has a greater chance of developing an environment for advancement on the pitch and off.

There can be almost no argument that football has developed a nasty and unwelcome attitude towards the hiring and firing of managers. I am offering a suggestion that the emphasis on money and results is misplaced by club owners and indeed by fans. The relationship between clubs and their staff should involve greater respect, if long-term success is the aim.

As a hugely passionate football supporter, I am guilty of wanting success and wanting it now. However, I think I might just give Alex McLiesh a chance, in spite of his rather blue and murky history. Thus far, he appears to have steadied the ship at Villa and might well – if given time – be able to form us into a solid, unified outfit that can eventually challenge where every fan, player, member of staff, owner and manager wants to challenge – at the very top. Football is tribal; we have our own colours, our own marks, our own aims and our own clubs.  Consistent unity is the key to any form of collective success and owners and fans need to remember this if their football club is to progress. No doubt it might require some patience, which is a virtue long forgotten in our great sport.


To finish, here are some key questions to consider:

Is it good that football is inconsistent and forever changing?

Of course, this is exciting and with new managers, teams are always trying new styles of play and this makes football the fantastic spectacle it is. However, thinking in terms of success of a football club, in terms of long-term strategy, consistency and unity with a single manager at the helm, leading the club forward, is the ideal. This is why ‘the modern game' culture of changing managers at each little dip in performance needs to change.

Manchester United, with Ferguson as their focal point, have built a football history and empire, on and off the pitch that is unrivalled – at least in English football. This blog will undoubtedly make me seem like the greatest Manchester United fan that ever lived, when quite the opposite is true. I am as cynica and jealous of their success as any other fan. Nontheless, Ferguson was rightly knighted for his effects on the game and his influence on managing a top flight club.


What does the future hold for managers of clubs with new money and higher expectations?

Paris-Saint-Germain have recently been taken over by Qatari Sports Invesmtments, who have more money than is quite comprehendible. For fans of French football, and the Parisians, this is exciting news. It has been a long time coming and now Ligue 1 is coming to light with the arrival of money at the sole club in France's beautiful capital city. Some top class players have arrived already, namely the €43 million Javier Pastore, who chose PSG over Chelsea – an indication of the exciting prospect that the fresh adventure at Paris holds.

Unfortunately, this comes with a side of negativity. Already questions are being asked about whether current manager Antoine Kombouaré will be able to lead the new stars at PSG to success. In the first game of the new season on Saturday 6th August, les rouges-et-bleus fans witnessed a woeful performance from their side, which has had €83 million of talent added to it over the summer. There was no unity, no cohesion and the fans were frustrated as the excitement turned to frustration on a rainy night at Parc des Princes as they lost 1-0 to Lorient. The next day, papers were questioning Kombouaré, when the truth was that the players did not perform.

In a similar situation is Roberto Mancini at Manchester City. In my view, he is rightly criticised for his defensive tactics, especially as the blue side of Manchester has seen around £500 million spent on players since their famous, or infamous, takeover. Mancini may not be the right man for the job, and his defensive tactics will not deliver the required trophy return for the investors, as I see it. Still, the question remains – with this new breed of super-rich club, is there any manager capable of achieving the success necessary to justify the money spent on these dream teams full of superstars?


Who on Earth will replace Sir Alex Ferguson?

Admittedly, none of us can possibly predict when he will retire, because he is showing no indications of coming close to it so far. However, when Ferguson retires, is there anyone who can arrive at United and continue what he has been doing for twenty five years?

There are bound to be many names in the picture for the United job, but there is fear that losing such a key figurehead could see a downturn in the team's consistent good fortune. There have been suggestions that Jose Mourinho is the natural replacement, because a man with such an ego is required to face the inevitable and intolerable pressure of being Fergie's successor. There is little doubt that Mourinho will indeed thrive under and relish the attention, but whether or not he would remain a long term fixture as manager of Manchester United is another issue, mainly due to his seeming necessity for fresh challenges. This is all circumstantial of course, and I can't say I'm hoping Sir Alex retires any time soon – I find his total inability to celebrate with style quite comical.

Whether we'll ever have a manager like Ferguson again is unclear. A man who is so consistently motivated to succeed, so proud of the club he manages, so determined to stay at the top of the game and so well respected by everyone connected the club – these qualities are hard to come by. For a manager to commit 25 years to a club is an inspiration and for Man United to stand by him throughout is equally so. For now, we shall see, for the future is in the hands of ‘the modern game'...
Oliver Scrimgeour

Total articles: 3

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